LOS ANGELES (CN) — A law enforcement and prison watchdog group sued the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office and the Sheriff’s Department on Thursday alleging a pattern of unlawful restricting of public access to misconduct claims and lawsuits against the agencies.
The Human Rights Defense Center claims the LA County Sheriff’s Department is refusing to grant public access to at least 1,000 claims and lawsuits alleging misconduct ranging from wrongful deaths, excessive force and sexual assaults by police officers and other department agents.
Settlements and adjudication of the claims against the Sheriff’s Department has cost taxpayers at least $550 million between 2012 and 2020 alone and the withholding of records amounts to a violation of the California Public Records Act, according to the 19-page petition for writ of mandate filed Thursday in LA County Superior Court.
The non-profit law enforcement watchdog, which publishes Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News, said in the petition the denial of records requests severely impairs their oversight abilities.
“The records provide important details about the shootings, car crashes, sexual assaults, beatings, prosecutorial misconduct, and other serious misconduct by these two agencies,” the petition said. “These records are of utmost public interest, especially when the public needs more information as it considers police reform.”
Claims against the district attorney’s office alleging various forms of misconduct have cost the county close to $3 million in 2019, the first year the county disclosed associated litigation costs, the petition said.
The group is represented by attorneys with the University of California, Irvine (UCI) School of Law Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic.
Attorneys wrote in the petition that the LA County agencies have denied their California Public Records Act requests filed between 2018 and 2020.
The petition claims the county has justified denial of the requests by claiming they were “overly broad and burdensome,” not a matter of public interest or too difficult to produce.
“It is just too hard for the county to search for the records,”UCI attorneys wrote in the petition. “So it didn't even try. That's not allowed under the law.”
In 2018, LA County agreed to comply with the group’s request for records on certain pre-litigation claims and payee information for a fee of $1,000. But it would not produce records related to settlement agreements, court judgments and lawsuits.
“The public interest in these records is extremely high,” the petition said.
“The public has a right to know the details of these claims and lawsuits, and settlements, which cost taxpayers more than $550 million in attorney fees and settlement costs from 2012 to 2020,” said Paul Wright, Executive Director of HRDC. “At a time when the public overwhelmingly supports police reform, the County cannot choose to keep the problems with its Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office under a veil of secrecy."
“The County claims that it's in the public interest to keep these documents secret because it’s just too hard for the County to search for the documents,” said UCI Law Adjunct Clinical Law Professor Susan E. Seager, who is representing the HRDC in the litigation. “But the law doesn’t allow the County to just throw up its hands and say it’s too hard without even trying to search."
A spokesperson for LA County counsel didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the petition.
Early in his tenure, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva came out in support of public disclosure of police misconduct records, specifically backing California Senate Bill 1421 which requires release of records on police shootings, excessive uses of force and confirmed cases of lying and sexual assault by on-duty officers.
Villanueva has since faced lawsuits and subpoenas from a sheriff’s department oversight board for refusing to disclose information on conditions inside county jails during the Covid-19 pandemic and information on internal deputy gangs.
LA County District Attorney George Gascón, who was elected in November on a reform platform, has embraced transparency in the largest prosecutorial office in the nation and plans to reopen some investigations into police misconduct and fatal police shootings.
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